Christian Paradox


He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, 

that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. 

By his wounds you have been healed. 

(1 Pet 2:24)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus teaches us to practice humility while pursuing righteousness even if we suffer shame, persecution, and death, as he did on the cross. Because death is the penalty for sin (Gen 3:3), Jesus’ righteous death on the cross allowed him to pay the penalty of our sin (1 Pet 2:24; 1 Cor 15:3) and his resurrection identified him as the son of God. This linking of sin to the penalty of death is critical to understanding Christ’s atoning work on the cross.

Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man. Out of 189 verses in the Bible that use this term, 89 are found in Ezekiel, which refer to the prophet himself. The term in Hebrew literally means “son of Adam” (Ezek 2:1). In the more famous passage in Daniel 7:13, the Hebrew expression is the more familiar “son of man.”

Christ’s atoning death runs against our usual assumption that our debt for sin is, not against God, but against our neighbor. For example, discrimination, a form of persecution against our neighbor, results in tensions over racial, ethnic, class, and gender equality, as the Apostle Paul taught:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek [racial and ethnic equality], there is neither slave nor free [economic equality], there is no male and female [gender equality], for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28)

Being one in Christ means that we model our lives after both Christ’s humble life and death so that humility replaces pride, discrimination, and persecution in our own lives, as evidenced in our treatment of others.

Modeling humility, Jesus offers many alternatives to violence in dealing with persecution, including:

1. Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matt 5:39)

2. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44).

3. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matt 5:41)

4. Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matt 7:1)

5. …render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Matt 22:21)

Refusing to defend oneself (one’s honor) could lead to perilous outcomes in a first century legal context because one was expected to offer one’s own defense, but it is absolutely necessary if persecution is to become a ministry opportunity, as we are told:

But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. (Luke 21:12–13)

We see this principle illustrated firsthand when Stephen refused to offer his own defense before the Sanhedrin and chose instead to defend Christ (Acts 7).

Stephen was the first among many Christian martyrs (Foxe 2001, 10), but other early Christians risked their lives in living testimony through service, as during a plague in Alexandria in the third century Christians refused to abandon the city and remained to care for the sick. A recent example of such fearless service was seen among Christian doctors working during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Less  so with the AIDS epidemic (Kinnaman and Lyons 2007, 110).

A life of fearless service is possible because in Christ’s resurrection life follows death—the origin of Christian paradox.


Foxe, John and Harold J. Chadwick. 2001. The New Foxes’ Book of Martyrs (Orig Pub 1563). Gainsville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

Kinnaman, David with Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Christian Paradox

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The Beatitudes: Monday Monologues, Podcast on February 10, 2020

Stephen W. Hiemstra 2020 (Ken Burtram Photography)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a  prayer and reflect on the Beatitudes. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.Beatitude

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

The Beatitudes: Monday Monologues, Podcast on February 10, 2020

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Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 2

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Wall Street has many proverbs that describe rookie investor mistakes. Famous last words of a rookie, for example, might be: “this time is different.” Or, for the rookie day trader: “trees don’t grow to the sky.” Or, one that might have saved a few tech fortunes that I know in the mid-1990s:“don’t confuse luck with smarts.” Each of these statements of Wall Street wisdom could easily apply also to the subject of human morality.

In part one of this review of David Wells’ book, Losing Our Virtue, I focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I examine his arguments in more depth.

Classical and Postmodern Spirituality

Addressing primarily an evangelical audience, Wells identifies two distinct contemporary spiritualities that both claim an evangelical heritage (belief in the Trinity, divinity of Christ, the resurrection, inspiration of scripture, and other core doctrines). In that sense, neither is generationally defined, but they differ in their response to postmodernism. In particular, in classical spiritualty, what is moral is central and in postmodern spirituality, it is not (34). The postmodern churches are counterculture being more therapeutic, more individualistic, and more anti-establishment (32).

Wells sees an additional distinction in the way that these two spiritualities experience moral questions. The classical church experience moral through guilt while the postmodern church experiences it through shame. (34) Here Wells sees of this shame:

“[There is] very little of which people are ashamed should they get caught or be exposed. It is, rather, the same of being naked within one’s self. It is shame experienced as inner emptiness, deprivation, loss, and disorientation. It is shame that is more psychological in nature than moral.”(35)

Citing Lewis Smedes, Wells observes that we “feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”(130)

Nothing here in the postmodern spirituality suggests being stricken by the moral presence of God (41), as we read:

 “O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!  If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”(Ps 130:2-3)

Where the classical spirituality focuses on God’s truth, the postmodern spirituality centers on God’s power; where the classical spirituality experiences God’s present through believing in his word and trusting in Christ’s work, the postmodern experiences God’s presence through the emotions and bodily actions—hands raised, swaying to the music, and release of pent up emotions (43). The postmodern piety has a mystical nature where God’s transcendent holiness cannot be experienced and parables, like the prodigal son, that presume the truth of sin seem almost inconceivable (45-49).

Character Versus Personality

Wells makes an important distinction between character, which arises from our inner life and virtues, and personality, which focuses on outward appearances. He writes:

“Today, we cultivate personality (a word almost unknown before the twentieth century) far more than we do character, and this is simply the concomitant to the way in which values have come to replace the older sense of virtue…Character is good or bad, while personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic.”(96-97)

In some sense, the “hollowing out of the self” began with this emphasis on exterior characteristics and is exemplified by the rise of celebrities over heroes. Wells notes, citing Daniel Boorstin:

“The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.”(100)

Neglect of the inner life is akin to devaluing our experience of God. Wells observes:

“If the narcissist classically has a shrunken, fragmentary self, our culture has similarly become hollowed out and lost its core. If the narcissist covers up the emptiness by exaggerated self-importance and fantasies of power, our culture is covering up its hollowness by fads and fashions, ceaseless consuming, and the constant excitement of fresh sexual conquest.”(108)

While someone of strong moral character has no need of “buzz,” personality addicts live for public approval. Pastors are not the ones often guilty of being people pleasers. In Washington, the joke is that most dangerous place to stand is between a particular congressional representative (or senator or president) and the television cameras.

Shame and Guilt

Wells observes that Americans are often subject to crippling shame, but we do not belong to the same kind of honor and shame society that we read about in the Bible because of our individualism. For most part, we do not feel guilty about much—people go on television and tell the most intimate details of their lives. We hold group identities so lightly that we do not feel guilty in letting them down the way ancients and non-western people might feel guilt. Wells writes:

“In a narcissistic culture, Donald Capps sums up, people ‘do not experience guilt to any significant degree’ in the sense of having failed objective moral norms, and yet, despite this fact, they still do not feel whole and happy. They are, instead, burdened by ‘a deep, chronic, and often inexplicable sense of shame. It is this, rather than guilt, that makes them feel ‘that something is seriously wrong with them.’ This sense, though, is internalized. It is psychological, not social. This is what makes us different from traditional ‘shame cultures’”(167)

This sense of shame accordingly comes across as been unworthy, unwanted, unclean, or just unlovable, and it masks the ability of many people to experience God’s grace.

Recovering our Moral Vision

Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:

 “it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)

In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:

“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.” (180)

Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.


David Wells’ Losing Our Virtuefocuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This book desires another look from today’s academics and frontline pastors.


Boorstin, Daniel J. 1962. The Image; or, What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Athemneum.

Capps, Donald. 1993. The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Smedes, Lewis B. 1993. Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve.New York: HarperCollins.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 2

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Maya Angelou Writes About Pain

maya_angelou_review_12312016Maya Angelou. 2015. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Orig Pub 1969). New York: Ballantine Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I was in graduate school, I shared an office with a black student from Trinidad. He was an easy person to like and we had a great time together. After a few weeks, however, I wondered why he seemed so different to me—he had no chip on his shoulder. I was accustomed to the African American chip and he lacked the chip.


In her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou wastes no time in revealing the chip. The first story that she shares is a story of shame, embarrassment, and torment in reciting a poem on Easter Sunday in Sunday school at the age of about three where she writes about her mother dressing her:

“As I’d watched Momma put ruffles on the hem and cut little tucks around the waist, I know that once I put it on I’d look like a movie star. (It was silk and that made up for the awful color). I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world.” (2)

Angelou was born April 4th, 1928 as Marguerite Annie Johnson[1] in Saint Louis, Missouri, which would place this event around 1931 during the Great Depression. Her awareness of social position at age three is astounding—my first awareness of the existence of black people did not come until I was around 5 years old and at that point I had no awareness of my social position or lack thereof. The idea that I would define my own identity at age three in turns of another social group is incredulous. Ms. Angelou was either an incredibly gifted three-year old or she is writing in adult voice about her experiences as a child, imposing an adult chip on a three-year old shoulder. Because she self-identifies as a civil rights activist, I suspect that the later interpretation is more appropriate.[2]

Deep Pain Theme

Whether you accept the chip or not, this is a powerful image of deep pain, which is a theme throughout this memoir. In the following chapter, she writes about the experience of being abandoned by her parents (5-9); later, she is reunited with her mother only to be raped at age eight by her mother’s boyfriend (77-82); the final chapter recounts how she solicited a physical relationship with a good looking boy—to upgrade her own self-esteem—and has a child out of wedlock at age 16 (273-283). The deep pain, that these events reveal, leads us to excuse her use of adult voice, in part, because such pain leaves little room for the vicissitudes of a sheltered childhood.

Not Extreme or Extraordinary

Such deeply troubling and painful events may seem extreme. If I had not worked in a hospital that serves African Americans, I might have questioned whether this memoir was typical of the African American experience but I met many women with similar stories. Sadly, such circumstances are too typical. What surprised me most about my conversations as a chaplain intern with these women was how few of them were willing to shoulder the chip to blame others.[3] The grace and magnanimity of these women—most of whom were deeply religious Christians—was a testimony to their faith.


Maya Angelou’s memoir, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, documents her early life experiences as a young black woman from the age of three until about sixteen living in the rural south (Stamps, Arkansas), Saint Louis, and California. Angelou is an engaging and expressive writer who writes about her deepest and most painful experiences growing up. Hopefully, she found catharsis in writing and we, as readers, can share in this catharsis.


[1] April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014.


[3] For Angelou, the chip is never far off. Near the end of her memoir, she writes: “The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.” (272)Maya Angelou Writes About Pain

Maya Angelou Writes About Pain

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12. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webCompassionate Father,

Be especially near me this morning—blott out my guilt; hide my shame; cover up my sin.  Share an intimate moment with me though I be unworthy. Remind me of better times. Grant me a new day in the sunshine of your mercy—a day when I could loose myself in your love and extend your love to those around me without a thought.  Open a bridge over the gaps that separate us—the gaps of time and holiness and power—that I might spend more time with those around me, might share in your holy affections, might overcome my own weaknesses and bitterness and turn to you instead of into my pain that I may experience godly, redemptive grief. Through the power of your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Wells: Character and Personality Differ—We Should Care Why

Virtue_review_04302015David Wells. 1998.  Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most painful lessons that I learned as a parent was that I could not assume that what I taught my kids would be reinforced by lessons in church, school, and other forums, like multi-media. While some might say that I was simply naive, my role as a father providing for the family was distracting enough.  Many of my peers failed to keep up financially with their parents—even after sending their wife out to work—in the face of stagnating and falling family incomes [1].

Some of the costs of this fight in our generation to defend living standards have been increased divorce, stressed out parents, and a lack of consciousness on how to deal with it.  In this context, moral training mostly fell through the cracks because, like other forms of education, moral training requires  time, money,  effort, and good role models in the community.  Meanwhile, multimedia provided scores of really bad role models and the internet provided a haven for care and feeding of some rather dysfunctional youth subcultures [2].  It is accordingly not surprising in a social and economic sense that we have seen a rapid decline in morality during this generation.

In his book, Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, David Wells documents this decline in morality from a theological perspective.  Wells writes:

“In this engagement, I shall argue, that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation.  That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing:  functionally, we not morally disengaged, adrift, and alienated; we are morally obliterated…In our schools…we shifted from teaching character formation to values clarification…Our children are not only more lawless in school…but are too often without any apparent moral consciousness regarding their actions.” (13)

In order to experience a decline in morality, one needs to articulate a standard for behavior.  Wells writes:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues.  First Plato and then Aristole talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues.  These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control)…The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived…The character of which we speak here is not simply the cultivation of natural virtue but the intensely conscious sense of living morally before God.” (14-16)

Wells provides a whirlwind review of the past 2,000 years of moral development.  However, most of the real change is very recent and revolves around the postmodern assault on the existence of objective truth.  If there is no one truth, then there can be no one set of virtues and no one ideal character type.  Wells observes that “postmodern critics oppose Christianity not because of its particulars, but simply because it claims to be true.” (19).

David F. Wells[3] is the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systemic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA and one of my own professors[4].  He writes Losing Our Virtues in 6 chapters proceeded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and index.  The 6 chapters are:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualties,
  2. The Playground of Desire,
  3. On Saving Ourselves,
  4. The Bonfire of the Self,
  5. Contradictions, and
  6. Faith of the Ages (viii-ix).

Wells is author of a number of books, including: No Place for Truth (1994), God in the Wasteland (1995), and Above All Earthly Powers (2005).

An important insight that Wells offers is also one difficult to understand fully.  He writes:

“…I shall develop the argument that this difference [between classical morality and postmodern morality] has produced a shift in the way that the moral is experienced.  It is a shift from guilt in the classical stream to shame in the postmodern.  However, it is shame in a uniquely contemporary way. It is not shame of being exposed before others because our individualism gives us permission to do whatever we like and whatever gratifies us provided that it…is legal.  There is, as a result, very little of which people are ashamed should they get caught or be exposed.  It is, rather, the shame of being naked within one’s self. It is shame experienced as inner emptiness, deprivation, loss, and disorientation.  It is shame that is far more psychological in nature than moral.” (34-35)

Wells sees guilt as “normally the emotional response to our violation of a moral norm” and shame is “our disappointment with ourselves that we are not other than what we are” (130).  Citing Dick Keyes, Wells writes:

“our inability to deal with shame and guilt right at the heart of our problems in identity. Identity is a matter of knowing who we are, both as human beings and as individuals, and through this understanding arriving at some internal cohesion and coherence.” (131)

If we do not know who we are, then we cannot say who we are not.  The identity problem accordingly spills over into our actions through an obvious lack of boundaries—as people do what feels good without guidance, an incredible number of crimes (abuse, corruption, drug use, mass murder…) and perversions (pedophilia, suicide, gender confusion…) come into view at rates unprecedented in recent history.  This is not just a measurement problem [5].  Historically, our morality lined us up with God’s immutable (unchanging) character—but if we cannot line such things up internally today, then how is it possible to act coherently in the external world? [6]  And what exactly does the church itself teach about morality today?

When I think about David Well’s Losing Our Virtue, I remember his distinction between character (internally defined and evidenced) and personality (externally defined and evidenced; 96-105)—television shows today mostly ignore the former and extol the latter.  Knowing the difference is one reason why David Well’s Losing Our Virtue is a book deserving of a deep read.


[1] Rather than upward mobility, this generation has mostly faced downward mobility both financially and socially.

[2]  For example, the goth subculture is probably the best known (   The emo subculture glories suicide (  For a list of subcultures in the United States, see: (


[4] My pastor and I are both students of Dr. Wells, though about 30 years removed. I will always remember Dr. Wells for gently disavowing me of the notion that theology begins and ends with the double love command (Matt 22: 36-40).

[5] Before the advent of co-educational dormitories on university campuses, for example, women and men did not live in the same building and access was tightly restricted.  The ability to misbehave in any way was much less likely.  The number of date rapes was accordingly not substantially underestimated in those years—it was variance around a much lower base.  The rise in the number of rapes is accordingly due to cultural changes, not measurement error.

[6] Making things worse, postmoderns do not believe in one objective truth.  In effect, they deny that a single line up with God is even possible.  Therefore, morality is inconsistent with their worldview.

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Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 2

Honor_and_shame_02192015Jerome H. Neyrey.  1998.  Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Neyrey organizes his discussion of honor like an anthropologist into 7 categories:

  1. Definition of honor,
  2. Sources of honor,
  3. Conflict and honor,
  4. Display and recognition of honor,
  5. Collective honor, and
  6. Gender and honor (14-15).

Under sources of honor, for example, Neyrey notes that honor can be both ascribed as in being born into a well-known family or achieved as in earning special merit (15).

Shame, by contrast, is the opposite of honor—loss of respect, regard, worth, and value in the eyes of others.  A shameless person does not care what people think of them (30).  Because honor and shame are displayed publicly, our individualistic culture downplays both honor and shame.

Honor must, of course, be defended.  Neyrey notes 4 steps into challenges to honor and response—reposte:

  1. Claim to honor,
  2. Challenge to that claim,
  3. Riposte to the challenge, and
  4. Public verdict by onlookers (44).

Neyrey (51) sees many examples of challenge and riposte in Matthew.  For example in Matthew 9: 1-8 we see:

Claim to honor:  “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” [Divinity claim] (v 2)

Challenge:         “This man is blaspheming.” (v 3)

Riposte:             “Which is easier…Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (vv 5-6)

Verdict:              “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid…” (v 8)

Much of Neyrey’s book focuses on the details of Matthew’s encomium of Jesus. For example, Matthew portrays Jesus as just in performing his duties to God, his parents, and the dead (109).  Jesus is faithful to God (his heavenly patron) even until death (Matt 26:39; 110).  He defended the rights of parents over traditions, like “korban” (Matt 15:5).  While Neyrey skips over the question of just for the dead, clearly Jesus’ teaching about eternal life would also honor the dead.

A key hypothesis that Neyrey advances is to read the Sermon on the Mount as reforming the honor code of his society.  Neyrey writes:

“Jesus did not overthrow the honor code as such, but rather redefined what constitutes honor in his eyes and how his disciples should play the game…For example, he forbade his disciples to play the typical village honor game by forswearing honor claims (i.e. boasting), challenges (i.e. physical and sexual aggressiveness), and ripostes (i.e. seeking satisfaction and revenge). Moreover, he attempted to redefine whose acknowledge (i.e. grant of honor) truly counts…Jesus , then, changed the way the honor game was played and redefined the source of honor, name, acknowledgment by God, not by neighbor.” (164).

Most importantly in this respect, Neyrey suggests that the Greek words “makarios” and “ouai” be translated respectively as esteemed or honorable (not blessed or happy) and as shame on or disrespectable (165-166). In this way, Jesus is redefining the honor code that applies to his disciples.

Neyrey also sees Jesus redefining shame in the last “makario”.  This verse in Matthew reads:  “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute [drive out] you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt 5:11 ESV)  Neyrey sees this verse addressing the problem of a son being disinherited for becoming Jesus’ disciple rather than being generally persecuted (169).  In other words, what society took as dishonorable, Jesus redefined as honorable[1].

Following Neyrey, the Sermon on the Mount can be read as Jesus offering more than your typical a pep talk to his disciples who needed reassurance.  He was commissioning them to a higher calling.  This calling was something worth dying for or, more importantly, something to live for.

Clearly, this reading is as important today as it was then.


[1]Neyrey reads Matthew as implying that:  “Discipleship often meant cross-generational conflict within families.” (227)  Today we see this dynamic when a Muslim or Jewish child converts to Christianity or when a child from a “good family” suddenly “gets religion” and drops out of college to pursue social ministry.

Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 2

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Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 1

Jeremey Neyrey Honor and ShameJerome H. Neyrey.  1998.  Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A frequent comment in the church today is the need to stop using all those “churchy” words. While the definition of “churchy” may be up for grabs, the focus of these comments is usually on words that have in the postmodern context lost their meaning. Verses, such as—“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…” (Rev 4:11 ESV)—almost certainly be classified as knee-deep in churchy words, because our buddy culture admits no one worthy of praise, glory or honor or of titles such as Lord and God.


In his book, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, Jerome H. Neyrey states his objective plainly:  “This book focuses on the praise of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in narrative form by the evangelist Matthew.” (1)  Neyrey sees gospel as a type of ancient writing form called an encomium which is a structured biography designed to offer praise (2). The rules for writing such encomium were the subject of rhetorical handbooks, starting with Aristotle.  Neyrey (4) writes:

“Nothing in the exercise of praise was left to chance, for students were instructed concerning the form of speech of praise, as well as the specific content of each element in that form.  They learned to organize their praise according to the conventional manner of presenting a person’s life from birth to death and in light of specific rules for developing praise at each state of life.”

Honor (τιμη) is the “worth or value of persons both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the village or neighborhood”“concern for ‘honor’ as reputation and ‘good name’ was endemic to the ancient world…” (5)

An important, but questionable, assumption in some biblical interpretation is that honor and shame play a same role in our own culture as in biblical culture. Cultural anthropologist sometimes describe American culture today as a guilt-innocence culture where guilt is only triggered when a law has been transgressed and shame, if experienced at all, is trigger when a law is broken and publically exposed[1]. The shame and guilt so important in biblical culture has lost its meaning. Complaints about the meaninglessness of “churchy” words underscore an important cultural shift that renders aspects of the biblical witness out of reach[2].


Neyrey writes in 10 chapters divided into 3 parts:

Part One:  Matthew: In Other Words

  1. Honor and Shame in Cultural Perspective
  2. Reading Matthew in Cultural Perspective

Part Two:  Matthew and the Rhetoric of Praise

  1. The Rhetoric of Praise and Blame
  2. An Encomium for Jesus: Origins, Birth, Nurture, and Training
  3. An Encomium for Jesus: Accomplishments and Deeds
  4. An Encomium for Jesus: Deeds of the Body and Deeds of Fortune
  5. An Encomium for Jesus: A Noble Death

Part Three:  The Sermon on the Mount in Cultural Perspective

  1. Matthew 5:3-12—Honoring the Dishonored
  2. Matthew 5:21-28—Calling Off the Honor Game
  3. Matthew 6:1-18—Vacating the Playing Field (v).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.


Neyrey is a tough read. Not only is it hard to follow the arguments, the arguments challenge important preconceptions that we hold in reading scripture. What happens if the “Jesus in our head” is not the Jesus of the bible?  What if our kids hear something different than what we do during the Sunday morning service? These are important questions which directly affect our interpretation of scripture and experience of church.  In Part 2 (look for the post on Monday, March 2), I will explore Neyrey’s arguments in more detail.



[2] For example, read:  2 Corinthians 7: Godly Grief (

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2 Corinthians 7: Godly Grief

My Grandparents' Tombstone
My Grandparents’ Tombstone

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The rapid pace of cultural change in our society can sometimes leave us speechless and unable to process some things that we observe.  For me, one of those moments occurred last week when I walked into my living room and saw my wife watching an episode of Dr. Phil.  On the show, a 16-year woman shamelessly recounted how she had been sexually intimate with several young men, one after the other, at a party.  Yet, she was upset on the show primarily because the whole incident was video-taped by others present [1].  By contrast, her mother’s response was more like mine—she was speechless and horrified.

A cultural anthropologist might describe this incident as an example of a response in a guilt-innocence culture where things not illegal trigger no internal feeling of shame—the individual feels no accountability to social norms (even on national television).  In an honor-shame culture, by contrast, the expected response would be to feel shame and attempt to hide the behavior to avoid sanctioning by the community [2].  My distress in observing this show suggests that one dimension of cultural change today is the shift from an honor-shame culture of most adults to a guilt-innocence culture among some youth today.

In chapter 5 of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth clearly addresses the culture in Corinth as an honor-shame culture.  The idea of holiness expressed in verse 1, for example, talks about holiness as spiritual cleansing motivated by fear of God.  Holiness is a virtue or character trait focusing on separating oneself from evil practices—defilement (spiritual dirtiness) [3]—or to preserve the sacred nature of something.  Holiness is a character trait valued primarily in an honor-shame culture, not a guilt-innocence culture.

Paul observes in the Corinthian church experiencing Godly grief after they mistreated him.  Paul writes:

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death (vv 9-10).

In other words, Godly grief brings shame which leads to repentance and a turning to God, hence—salvation.  The young woman on Dr. Phil, by contrast, only grieved that she had been video-taped—she expressed no repentance.  The discipline which Paul practiced in Corinth and led to their salvation would have been pointless in the case of this young woman.

How does someone experience Godly grief in a guilt-innocence culture?  I fear that one can only outgrow a youth culture stuck in guilt-innocence mode [4], but I pray for God’s intervention.


[1] Dr. Phil, August 6, 2014, Not-So-Sweet 16: “My Daughter’s Dangerous Sex Life” (


[3] μολυσμός (BDAG 4973) noun version of verb, μολύνω (BDAG  4972.1), meaning to “cause something to become dirty or soiled, stain”, soil  in a “in sacred and moral context”. 

[4] One could perhaps say that Rosaria Butterfield went through this process marrying at age 39.  No longer able to have children of her own, she and her husband adopted and raised orphans.   (The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  Pittsburgh:  Crown and Covenant Publications, 2012, page 108).

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